To preface the counter-arguments, yes, statistics clearly state that Alex Avila was good offensively and defensively last year. He’s a left-handed hitter in a sea of Detroit righties. He has a passing familiarity with some of the Detroit pitchers.
And yet, this deal is a definite head-scratcher.
Avila had a pretty solid offensive season last year, with a slash of .213/.359/.373 and a wRC+ of 104. Both of those stat lines are better than what Jerrod Saltalamacchia provided last year. However, Avila blew goats the year before. Like, REAL bad, in a hitter’s ballpark. And the fact of the matter is that although he can get on base at a mouth-watering pace, he can’t do much else: he’s slow and getting slower (his Spd rating has been descending steadily since 2011) and he can’t seem to drive runners in (his RISP last year was .109).
And he’s been doing better against lefties, which is strange, because that’s what James McCann is already doing well. Hell, a LH batter in a platoon is supposed to hit righties, but his lefty hitting is just adding to what the Tigers already do well.
His defense pales in comparison to McCann, which makes sense: McCann is younger and is growing in leaps & bounds in the skills which made him such an intriguing young prospect in the first place. But last year Saltalamacchia was better at framing pitches and manipulating the strike zone at a fraction of the cost. Avila’s Def rating also spiked compared to the atrocious previous season he endured, so was it a moderate return to form or an aberration in his decline? What is Avila so good at that he required a generous deal for a backup catcher?
Again, this isn’t to say Avila is a horrible player; He’s actually good compared to the other free agent catchers that were out there (believe me, I checked). It’s just that he’s good at things the Tigers already had, and he adds no new elements to a team that needs improvement.
As for his acquaintance with the Detroit pitchers, consider this: only FIVE of the pitchers from the 2014 squad, Avila’s last in Detroit, are still here. The turnover has been subtly huge, with only Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Blaine Hardy, Kyle Ryan, and Buck Farmer having been caught by Avila. He basically has to learn an entirely new stable of pitchers, so that argument is moot.
What’s most infuriating about this, for me at least, is that at the beginning of the off season GM Avila said this team was going to get cheaper and younger, and Catcher Avila is neither of those things. Last year the Tigers spent 500 grand and change for Jerrod Saltalamacchia and a bit of John Hicks. They got a pretty damn good bit of offensive production for not that much money… even though, granted, Avila was worth about a win more. But again, this flies directly in the face of what the Tigers’ front office said earlier.
And then there’s his health. This is a catcher with multiple concussions over multiple years. He’s had back, leg, arm trouble, he plays too close to the plate to avoid being hit by batters, and again, he’s had MULTIPLE CONCUSSIONS OVER MULTIPLE YEARS. Honestly, all it could take is one bad foul tip off his mask and then he’s gone. One of my favorite baseball writers, Ron Shandler, referred to staying healthy as a skill. This is not one of Avila’s skills, and it could be a costly one.
It basically boils down to this: Al Avila just dropped $2 million on a backup catcher who is turning 30 next month, one with myriad concussions under his belt, one who can’t move on the bases, one who doesn’t bring anything new to the Tigers’ offense, and one who has to learn an entirely new staff.
This is not a good deal.